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Authors: Jan Hambright

Tags: #Romance, #Suspense

The High Country Rancher

BOOK: The High Country Rancher
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Baylor didn’t want to spook her, but he sensed someone had been in Mariah’s room.

“What woke you?” Baylor asked as he slid the screen closed and sat down on the hearth.

“The back door was wide open and banging against the doorjamb in the wind.”

Could the figure she’d seen outside be the person who’d made the tracks in her room? He didn’t know for sure, but he wouldn’t relax until he got Mariah safely off the mountain.

“Get some rest.” He moved away from her, closer to the chair next to the fireplace, to stand guard, and watched her close her beautiful blue eyes.

Whatever was going on at the Bellwether Ranch was his problem; he wasn’t about to get her involved.

JAN HAMBRIGHT
The
H
IGH
C
OUNTRY
R
ANCHER

To my editor, Allison.
Thank you for making me push myself.

To my family, who endured too many chili nights
while I worked late. You’re the best! Love Ya.

And to my friend Ellen, for the great pictures
you took of my horse Texas,
who may or may not have made the book’s cover. Smiles.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jan Hambright penned her first novel at seventeen, but claims it was pure rubbish. However, it did open the door on her love for storytelling. Born in Idaho, she resides there with her husband, three of their five children, a three-legged watch dog and a spoiled horse named Texas, who always has time to listen to her next story idea while they gallop along.

A self-described adrenaline junkie, Jan spent ten years as a volunteer EMT in rural Idaho, and jumped out of an airplane at ten-thousand feet attached to a man with a parachute, just to celebrate turning forty. Now she hopes to make your adrenaline level rise along with that of her danger-seeking characters. She would like to hear from her readers and hopes you enjoy the story world she has created for you. Jan can be reached at P.O. Box 2537, McCall, Idaho 83638.

Books by Jan Hambright

HARLEQUIN INTRIGUE

865—RELENTLESS

943—ON FIRE

997—SHOWDOWN WITH THE SHERIFF

1040—AROUND-THE-CLOCK PROTECTOR

1118—THE HIGH COUNTRY RANCHER

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Baylor McCullough
—After a past filled with too much pain, this rancher just wants to be left alone. Then a beautiful detective turns up injured on his ranch.

Detective Mariah Ellis
—She’s come to question Baylor McCullough about a missing local man. But thanks to a blizzard, she finds herself holed up on his property…and in his bed.

Prosecutor James Endicott
—He’s a missing person.

Amy McCullough
—She’s dead, but what pertinent information in this case died along with her?

Rachel Endicott
—What’s her connection to the case, other than knowing that Amy McCullough and her husband were having an affair?

Harley Neville
—He’s a nosey neighbor on the east side of the Bellwether ranch, but does he take nosey to an extreme?

Ryan Worchester
—If there’s evidence to be discovered, this CSI will uncover it.

Ray Buckner
—He’s a rodeo circuit cowboy with information. Will he live for his eight-second ride?

Chief Ted Ellis
—Having a daughter who’s a detective in his department makes him happy, but wonders if she’ll be able to keep her objectivity where Baylor McCullough is concerned.

Travis Priestly
—The ranch hand stumbled onto someone’s secret and survived an attack, but will he come out of his coma in time to help?

Chapter One

Baylor McCullough flipped the collar of his oilskin duster up around his neck, and spurred his horse into the wind raging from the north in icy waves.

Snow pelted his face, stinging like tiny BBs, but he focused instead on the lay of the land, trying to define it in the blizzard swirling around him.

The warming pen in the barn brimmed with early spring calves, too young to survive the freak storm hammering the Salmon River high country.

Only one was missing. A bald-faced calf he’d seen with its mother yesterday afternoon before the sky clouded to murky white and the air temperature dipped below freezing.

Reining in his horse, Texas, he paused, spotting an outline in the snow just below the border of ancient ponderosa pines that lined the driveway leading into the ranch. The shape disappeared as the wind shifted, smearing his vision.

“Get up.” He tapped his heels against the horse’s
flanks and rocked forward in the saddle, aiming for the trees less than twenty yards away.

Night would fall soon; the storm was intensifying.

Nothing would survive after dark. He was running out of time.

Texas’s hooves thudded against the frozen earth as he searched for traction in the blowing snow and plowed through the drifts accumulating and dissipating like sand dunes on the Sahara.

Baylor forced his hat down hard on his head and steered the horse around a tangle of branches that had been ripped from one of the ponderosa. He’d be lucky if the storm didn’t take out the power before it spent its fury on the Bellwether Ranch.

“Whoa.” He eased back on the reins, stopped the horse and climbed down out of the saddle. Kneeling in the snow, he brushed hard, exposing the hide of the bald-faced calf he’d seen only yesterday, but he was too late.

He straightened. It was only one calf, only one in his herd of hundreds, but it was a loss. A knot clinched in the pit of his stomach. He mounted up, and turned Texas for the ranch a quarter of a mile away, fighting for every breath he dragged into his lungs from the blasting wind.

The pine branches he’d passed earlier whipped and jerked in the gale, like sheets on a clothesline.

Texas spooked and skittered sideways.

Baylor kept his seat in the saddle, bringing the scared horse under control.

For an instant the snow cleared, giving him a view he hadn’t expected.

Concern slid through his veins, driving him forward. He bailed off his horse and went to the ground, digging into the snowdrift piled up against the limb, looking for the thing he believed he’d seen for a brief second, and praying he was wrong.

Brushing away the last of the snow, he stared down at a human hand.

He jerked off his leather glove and pressed his fingers to the wrist, feeling for a pulse. It drummed beneath his fingertips, faint and thready.

Still alive. But not for long if he didn’t do something.

Baylor pushed to his feet and rushed to his horse.

Texas’s eyes went wide. He took a couple of steps back.

“Easy boy.” Hand out, Baylor touched the horse’s neck, calming him, before he fumbled with the laces and untied his lariat from the saddle.

He trudged back through the snow and looped the noose of the rope around the thick base of the limb.

Striding back to his horse, he mounted up, wrapped the rope around the saddle horn and urged Texas back.

“Easy…easy.” He coaxed, hoping to keep the spooked animal from an all-out bolt.

Three feet. Five feet. Ten feet. Clear.

Baylor dismounted, unwrapped the rope from the
saddle horn and coiled it up as he lunged back to the spot where the limb had fallen, trapping someone.

Dropping the rope, he went to his knees and started digging. Panic drove him, until he found the hand again. Reaching down, he judged where the body was and locked his arms around it. In one pull it came free, sending him backward onto his backside with his arms wrapped around a body, and a face full of snow, but it was the sight of a slender body, and a wisp of long blond hair sticking out from under a stocking cap that fisted worry in his gut.

A woman? A hypothermic woman, a dead woman, if he didn’t get her back to the house. How long had she been lying there in the freezing cold? He mentally tried to establish a timeline as he stood up, and pulled her into his arms. She hadn’t been there at 3:00 p.m. when he’d gone out to round up his cows and calves just before the storm broke.

Putting one foot in front of the other, he maneuvered through the snow until he reached Texas, who’d calmed and stood with his head low, hind-quarters turned into the gale.

Gently, he draped her over the front of the saddle. Foot in stirrup, he mounted up and pulled her back into his arms, settling her against him.

Staring down, he saw her face for the first time. High cheekbones, a strong chin, full lips, refined, but much too still and void of color. The only thing marring her features was a bloody scrape on her right
temple, probably caused by the limb when it hit her, knocked her down and trapped her.

Who was she? And what was she doing on the Bellwether?

Concern rattled through him. He might already be too late. He wasn’t a doctor, but head injuries and hypothermia were serious business.

He turned Texas for home, hoping he had better luck saving the beautiful woman in his arms than he had had with the early spring calf who lay frozen to death in the snow.

 

D
ETECTIVE
M
ARIAH
E
LLIS
became aware of her body one tingling appendage at a time, starting with her toes. She was cold. As cold as she’d ever been, but the air against her bare skin was warm.

Her bare skin? A hazy image accompanied her return to consciousness: a man lying next to her, his body pressed to hers, his warmth soaking into her frozen veins.

In a burst of horror and disoriented thought, her eyelids shot open and she jerked upright in the bed. A bed she didn’t recognize, in a room that didn’t belong to her.

Covered with only a sheet, she grabbed the bulky rust-colored comforter folded at the foot of the massive four-poster, and yanked it up around her neck.

Quieting, she listened for any sound of movement.

Her head throbbed, her stomach rebelling against
the sudden jolt of excitement. Flopping back against the fluffy pillows, she waited for the nausea to pass.

The mournful howl of the wind blowing against the house was the only sound in the candlelit room, besides the crackle coming from a blazing fire burning in a massive stone fireplace, positioned against the wall opposite the bed.

Tension squeezed every muscle in her body as one-by-one she recovered her memories of the day’s events.

She’d come to the Bellwether Ranch to question its owner, rancher Baylor McCullough, about a missing prosecutor, James Endicott.

Was this McCullough’s home?

His bed?

Panic frayed her nerves and left her agitated.

She’d been advised to use caution where Baylor McCullough was concerned. He had been, after all, a suspect in his wife’s death a year ago.

Scanning the room, she spotted the object of her search. Throwing back the comforter, she climbed out of bed. A chill raked over her bare skin and her gaze settled on a silky robe draped over the footboard.

Mariah swallowed, took two steps forward and snatched the garment. She pulled it on, securing the belt with a tight tug.

The room spun.

Grabbing for the footboard, she steadied herself.

Head pounding, she reached up and felt the gauze bandage taped in place on her right temple.

The branch. She’d been clipped by it while she’d walked along the road into the ranch after her car slid into the ditch half a mile back. Things were beginning to make sense. All but the faint memory of not being in the four-poster alone.

Had she dreamt that?

Taking several deep breaths, she focused on her service revolver and faltered forward until she reached the mirrored wooden dresser where it lay.

Wrapping her left hand around the holster, she pulled out the shiny .38 with her right, and instantly felt a surge of relief coat her nerves. A girl could always rely on her weapon.

She didn’t know what Baylor McCullough was capable of, and she didn’t want to find out. The .38 was the only deterrent between the two options, and she intended to use it if she had to.

Her feet stung as she turned around and stared at the open door that led out of the large bedroom. The flicker of candles in the adjacent darkness put her on edge.

Fighting the pain in her feet that resembled a zillion tiny needle pricks, she took a step forward, then another, shuffling until she reached the entry.

Stopping, she leaned against the doorjamb for support and scoped out what appeared to be the living room.

A fire blazed in a river-rock fireplace centered
against one wall. Light from the flames ebbed and flowed, touching the articles in the room with its glow.

Somewhere in the unfamiliar house Baylor McCullough waited.

Was he armed?

Raising her service revolver, she inched forward, getting a sense of the room’s layout and analyzing it for cover.

The sound of someone’s deep, even breathing sliced into her senses.

She turned toward the sound and stopped her advance.

She spotted the room’s only occupant sprawled in a deep leather chair and focused on his denim-clad thighs, long, lean, well muscled and stretched out in front of him. His boot-encased feet were casually crossed at the ankles and rested on an ottoman.

By the time her tenuous gaze moved up his shirtless six-packed torso and settled on his face, she realized he was looking back.

“Detective Ellis.” The surety in his voice rattled her nerves worse than any high-speed chase ever had.

With a force that took her breath away, she snapped back into the reality that belonged to her. She was a cop and he was her number one suspect, if she could find her badge, and her…clothes.

“And you’d be Baylor McCullough?”

He rocked forward in the chair, pushing the otto
man aside before he stood up, tall, broad-shouldered and silhouetted against the firelight.

Panic zipped along her nerve endings and her mouth went bone-dry.

“I believe you already know the answer, considering you found your way into my ranch.”

Irritation warmed her insides as she lowered the pistol, her vulnerability exposed under his intense stare like a Norwegian tourist’s winter skin on Maui in December.

Embarrassment fired in her body and hit its target on her cheeks. She wasn’t a rookie; feeling like one bothered her.

“You…rescued me from the storm?”

He gave a tiny nod, confirming her suspicion and solidifying her troubles.

“My car slid into the ditch half a mile from here.” She swallowed the lump in her throat, trying to salvage whatever thread of dignity she had left. She was bare-butt naked inside the silky robe, and she was sure he’d been the one who’d facilitated that little detail. This was no way to start an interview with a suspect, but it was the only starting point she had.

His chiseled features softened. His steel-blue eyes twinkled with amusement as he moved toward her in relaxed, even strides.

“I’ve got water on the cookstove. I’ll make you some hot tea. You need to drink it.”

“And my badge?”

The twinkle disappeared. His jaw, darkened by stubble, set in a hard line. He clamped his teeth together. “Hanging in the closet with your dry clothes.”

A tingle raced through her body as she looked up at him, unsure if she should be cautious or apologetic. He had, after all, saved her life.

He must have sensed the quandary she found herself in because he attempted to smile. “This storm has us locked in. It’ll be a couple of days before the outside world knows you’re missing.”

Mariah felt drained. The edges of her caution melted away for a moment only to be resolidified an instant later.

“I’ll have to check for myself. Have you got a telephone I can use?”

“Out. Along with the electricity.” He turned away from her and she stared at the well-developed muscles cording his back as he moved toward the kitchen.

“I’d stay off your feet for a day or two. You’ve got some frostbite. Walking around could damage the tissue, and you’ve got nice feet. Go back to bed if you want to keep your toes.” With that warning and compliment he disappeared into the darkened kitchen just beyond the firelight.

Mariah’s heart rate shot up. She’d managed to get herself into one heck of a mess. The idea of being trapped on a mountain with no phone, no car and a suspect with a foot fetish was more than she’d bargained for when she’d left the station this afternoon.

Still, she was glad he’d found her, because the alternative was a slow, cold death. She shivered, unsure if it was the result of the air temperature, or the idea of being held up with Baylor McCullough. Her prime suspect in the disappearance of James Endicott, the prosecutor who’d tried to charge him with vehicular manslaughter in his wife Amy’s death.

Hobbling back to the bedroom, she clutched the .38 a little tighter.

 

B
AYLOR PULLED A MUG
out of the cupboard next to the sink and carried it over to the counter next to the cookstove. Every nerve in his body had twisted into a knot the moment he’d discovered her badge and gun in the process of removing her wet clothes.

He knew the lanky blonde with a kick-ass body who warmed his bed wasn’t here to sell him a subscription to
Ladies’ Home Journal.
So what did she want? He’d seen the way she gripped her pistol, picked up on the embarrassment of the situation she found herself in. Worse, she was afraid of him. That knowledge put his emotions in a tailspin. He’d never hurt a woman and he didn’t plan to start now.

Opening a canister, he pulled out a tea bag, unwrapped it and put it in the cup, before filling it with hot water and setting the kettle back on the cookstove.

He dunked the tea bag, watching the liquid turn to amber in the candlelight before he removed it, squeezed it and laid it on the counter, trying to rid his mind of the body contact images branded on it.

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